x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Pakistan’s Sharjah battle with South Africa in contrast to Nagpur slogathon

Sharjah offers a stark opposite to the 700-plus run marathon from the India-Australia game, but the partisan Pakistan fans were not the ones complaining.

Pakistan’s Saeed Ajmal pitches a delivery during the first one-day international cricket match between Pakistan and South Africa at the Sharjah Cricket Stadium in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
Pakistan’s Saeed Ajmal pitches a delivery during the first one-day international cricket match between Pakistan and South Africa at the Sharjah Cricket Stadium in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

SHARJAH // It is difficult not to feel like the poor relations on evenings like this.

While Virat Kohli’s Miracle of Nagpur was unfolding over in India, two teams who are trying to find their way in one-day cricket duelled in a borrowed stadium in Sharjah.

If India and Australia were playing Fantasy Cricket in their Maharashtra runfest, then Pakistan and South Africa were prosaically going about real life in the Emirates.

The world’s best batsman was not here. (He was not in India, either, given that South Africa’s Hashim Amla – absent while he awaits the birth of his second child – officially ranks above Kohli.)

Neither was the man regarded by most as the world’s leading fast bowler, as Dale Steyn has been given some time off by the Proteas. Instead, we had to make do with a collection of more workaday talents and some up-and-comers.

Did the cricket suffer for it? Not if you appreciate bowlers. And sometimes it feels like international cricket – thanks to a combined sadistic streak of broadcasters, governing boards and groundsmen – really doesn’t.

So India and Australia thrashed over 700 runs between them in 100 overs? Well, bully for them. Next time, why not just stick up a couple of bowling machines at either end, see who can hit it furthest, and let the bowlers go and lie by the pool.

At last check, bowlers were still supposed to be a part of the game. At least here the likes of Saeed Ajmal, with his four wickets, and Shahid Afridi, Wayne Parnell and Imran Tahir, with three wickets each, were able to show off their wares.

It does seem a little odd to use Sharjah as grist to the mill for the pro-bowling lobby, of course. For most of its lifespan, this ground has been hell on earth for bowlers.

This was the first time the relaid batting wicket in the middle of the ground was being used in international cricket. The pitch was dug up at the start of June with a view to promoting a more even battle between bat and ball.

One month ago, there was more tightly woven grass on it than on the pampas. However, it’s appearance before the start of play here was just like Sharjah of old.

The baked mud had the sort of visible sheen in which batsmen could probably see their reflection, if they looked close enough. Bowlers were already probably fearing the worst.

And yet the two sets of batsmen ended up squabbling over not much more than half of the run tally the sides managed in Nagpur.

Engrossing as Pakistan’s run-chase was, as 50-over chases invariably are on slow pitches, this was far from a Sharjah classic.

There have been 212 to choose from (the ground extended its world record number of ODIs hosted) and this was not its best.

But you would not have known it by looking at the supporters.

The opening match of this series brought with it the sort of revelry that one-day international cricket in this city does so well.

As their team’s run-rate dwelt around 3.2, Pakistan supporters did a conga around the Qasim Noorani stand.

Even in the posh seats, fans beat drums.

Thirty years after construction, this remains the most atmospheric and accessible of this country’s enviable cricket venues.

Although it may not be all shiny and new like the Vidarbha Cricket Association Stadium in Nagpur, it is still capable of making the odd nod to modernity.

While cricket’s most generous sponsors wade over each other to get at the sport’s most bankable players – all Indians – Pakistan continues its costly exile abroad.

Balancing the books while being forced to play all of their matches away from home is a difficult task for the Pakistan board.

But there is still commerce here. Sharjah Cricket Stadium has rarely had as much bunting decking it as it did last night.

Sure, those who had paid for advertising space might have been block pavers, tractor companies and wet-wipe manufacturers, rather than telecoms giants or IT multinationals.

But it is all valuable lucre in coffers that might otherwise be bare. And it was not just the administrators who profited.

One celebrity Pakistan supporter was sat in the grandstand thanks to the generosity of a local hotel. He had the sponsorship logo on the back of his luminous green salwar kameez to prove it.

Elsewhere in the bleachers, another supporter held a homemade placard extolling the virtues of Ten Sports – and cleverly had his name and company (a shoemakers) written in only slightly smaller font.

Clearly, he was only here for the telly. But still, entrepreneurial spirit like that deserves a bit of airtime.

Despite all the obvious challenges, Pakistan cricket finds a way of surviving. And the international game should be grateful for it.


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